Talking to Eeyores
©2020, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.

For an illustration of the most difficult type of stakeholder I have ever encountered, we can turn to the works of one A.A. Milne, the creator of one of the most beloved series of characters in children's literature.

And I don't mean Winnie the Pooh here. I'm referring to Eeyore.

In the stories, the toy donkey is "pessimistic, gloomy, depressed, and anhedonic" (thank you, Wikipedians). But there are some Eeyores you'll meet in your travels as a Lean Six Sigma Practitioner as well:

"This improvement will never work."

"The project is going to fail."

"We've already tried this."

"We're all gonna die."

OK, maybe not that last one, but there are certainly times when an Eeyore involved with the project can make you feel approximately that bad.

How does one deal with such a character?

Well, the concept of Accepting What You Cannot Change is likely to apply. It might be interesting to explore the backstory of this individual, but if the attitude is firmly entrenched, it's probably not worth your time.

So… workarounds, if that's possible. If your Eeyore is just a member of the project team, or a subject matter expert, then there may be ways to counteract the negativity. For example, you can align positive (or overly positive) team members with this person, especially if they already know the Eeyore in question.

Or you can—and I mean this—solicit and value the input. If there are specific reasons why Eeyore thinks "this will never work," those might be important risk factors for the project. If there's nothing to back up a general statement, though, that's not going to be very helpful.

The presence of an Eeyore is much more risky in a position of authority: sponsor, champion, finance approver, senior leader. I've had projects with an Eeyore at the top. It's not hard to guess what happened with those efforts. This is where Knowing Thy Stakeholders is so important.

My approach to this is head-on: I ask, "What does success look like to you?" If there's no good answer, then, if I have the backing of the organization, I will ask, "Then why do you want this particular project? Is there something else we could be helping with that would make more sense?" This accomplishes at least two things: first, it shows that you're paying attention, and second, it shows that you're flexible.

One final loaded question: did you recognize yourself as an Eeyore? I don't mean once in a while... we all have our moments. (Just ask my wife.) If you did, then I invite you to consider how you might have gotten there. There could be reasons that I'm not qualified to comment on, but it also could be that you've been subject to circumstances beyond your control. Trust me, everyone has. It can get discouraging. Try not to let it take over.

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